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Fight the right's attack on abortion

By Sharon Smith | January 23, 2004 | Page 7

THIRTY-ONE YEARS ago, the Supreme Court's January 22, 1973, Roe v. Wade decision granted women in the U.S. the right to choose safe, legal abortion. The anti-abortion crusade has been hell-bent on taking this right away from women ever since.

The abortion controversy is usually portrayed as a question of morality--a debate over whether human life begins at the moment of conception. But nothing in the Roe v. Wade decision suggests that anyone personally opposed to abortion should be forced to have one. The abortion debate is not moral, but political--over women's rights, and whether women should have the ability to control their own bodies and reproductive lives.

The anti-abortion crusade, led by the forces of the Christian Right, aims to turn back the clock to the days before the women's liberation movement of the 1960s, when women's lives were defined solely by their roles as mothers and housewives.

The right to choose is a precondition for women's equality with men, because it allows women control over their own bodies and reproductive lives. This control must remain in the hands of women themselves, because women alone ultimately bear the financial, physical and emotional consequences of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term.

This is especially important since women continue to bear the brunt of child-rearing and household responsibilities, and U.S. society offers virtually no support to single mothers raising children at wages much lower than men's. The fact that one out of every three women will have an abortion by the time she reaches the age of 45, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, shows how crucial the right to choose is for millions of women today.

Not surprisingly, the Christian Right's anti-abortion strategy centers on promoting the false impression that women choose abortion for frivolous reasons, and "selfishly" delay their abortions until the third trimester for the sake of convenience. States across the U.S. have passed hundreds of laws curtailing women's right to choose--imposing mandatory 24-hour waiting periods, requiring teenagers to notify or obtain the consent of their parents even in abusive families, and refusing state funding for poor women's abortions even if they have cancer or diabetes.

In November, the attack on abortion reached the federal level, when Congress passed a ban on the intact dilation and extraction abortion procedure (which right-wingers deliberately mislabeled "partial-birth abortion") without so much as a clause to protect the health of the pregnant woman. Recent opinion polls show a majority of Americans supporting this ban, demonstrating the success of the Christian's Right's strategy--but also the failure of the women's movement to defend abortion rights.

While the anti-abortion crusade has relentlessly pursued an activist strategy, pro-choice leaders embraced only those demands that will "play" on Capitol Hill. The largest pro-choice organizations have increasingly limited their "activism" to issuing press releases, or spending the bulk of their time and money on fancy cocktail parties to raise money for pro-choice Democrats.

The fact that some of those same Democrats turned around and voted for the so- called " partial birth" abortion ban in November demonstrates the bankruptcy of this strategy. Pro-choice organizations are calling for a national demonstration in Washington, D.C., on April 26--and activists should mobilize for a massive turnout.

At the same time, activists must address the issue of what kind of a movement is needed to turn the tide back in favor of abortion rights--a right that until recently was supported by a clear majority of Americans. Activism and solidarity--not press releases and cocktail parties--are needed to build the kind of movement that can link the right to choose with the fight for women's equality.

Between 1968 and 1973, tens of thousands of women and men held hundreds of protests across the U.S. which made women's right to choose a central demand--along with equal pay, childcare and an end to discrimination--of the women's liberation movement. A movement today that opposes everything the Christian Right stands for will find millions of people on its side.

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